The Current

Fired airline union head says staff are targets of censorship campaign over Hong Kong protests

Rebecca Sy, former Cathay Pacific cabin crew union head, says the recent dismissal of several employees  underscores the very fears that sparked the Hong Kong political crisis: that China is intervening in the freedoms of the one-country, two-systems formula.

Cathay Pacific 'made a wrong decision to terminate us because we have different political stance': Rebecca Sy

Rebecca Sy was among some of Cathay Pacific Airways' workforce sacked last month under pressure from Beijing over the ongoing political crisis. (Anthony Wallace/AFP/Getty Images)
Listen19:06

Read Story Transcript

Rebecca Sy, former Cathay Pacific cabin crew union head, says the recent dismissal of several employees underscores the very fears that sparked the Hong Kong political crisis: that China is intervening in the freedoms of the one-country, two-systems formula.

Sy had been employed by Cathay Dragon, a low-budget subsidiary of Cathay Pacific Airways, for 17 years before she was sacked as a flight attendant on Aug. 22 without explanation.

She claims management questioned her about three private Facebook posts linked to the pro-democracy protests before letting her go. 

"We didn't do anything wrong," she told The Current's interim host Laura Lynch. "They made a wrong decision to terminate us because we have different political stance."

At least 20 pilots and cabin crew have been terminated or have resigned since China's aviation regulator demanded the carrier bar personnel from flying over its airspace if they had engaged in the anti-government demonstrations, according to the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions.

The airline, which employees about 27,000 Hong Kong staff, said in a statement last week that it is fully committed to the "one country, two systems" arrangement, but is "duty-bound" to comply with the regulatory requirements when determining whether or not to dismiss an employee. 

Sy describes the latest turbulence to hit the former British colony as a "white terror" campaign, a phrase used to describe anonymous acts that stoke a climate of fear. 

China's Communist Party rulers in Beijing, she told Lynch, are stepping up pressure on the corporate sector in order to crack down on unrest that has plunged Hong Kong into the biggest political crisis in more than two decades. Here is part of their conversation.

Did you post anything about the protests?

Yes I did, of course. But this is not with me in uniform. I was just doing it like a normal Hong Kong citizen.

We've been doing it for years, all kind of protests. It seems not a problem to them at that time. 

Were you warned that you shouldn't be participating in any form?

They just warned us, "You can't participate in those illegal ones," but the those I participated in [were] legal. We got the no objection notification from the police.

You call your termination part of a "white terror" campaign. What do you mean by that?

Yeah, because they are asking us to even keep our mouth shut when you're in your private time, when you're off duty and you're not in your uniform. 

Actually, we are not representing the company. We are just telling everyone or share our thoughts or share some post or make some comments on some events using our own private Facebook accounts.

Why the company would have the right, or they would even listen to the Chinese authority, to ask the employees to stop doing this, we just found ridiculous.

You shouldn't oppress one's freedom of speech because it's granted by the basic law. And we have been enjoying it. We have been doing it for so many years in Hong Kong, even after 1997.

Demonstrators hold signs opposing the recent firings of Cathay Pacific employees as they gather for a demonstration at the Edinburgh Square in Hong Kong on Aug. 28, an event organized by the main trade union representing employees. (Philip Fong/AFP/Getty Images)

How are your colleagues, or your former colleagues, reacting to all of this?

At the beginning when we got the serious warning from the Chinese aviation authority, our colleagues just found it very annoying because they had to do extra work to co-operate with the local offices.

When we arrived in China, no matter if you're staying overnight or not, once the aircraft arrived they would have some officers ... check your phone. 

You have to give the phone to them to screen, to censor. [They] even search baggage. They have to ask all kinds of safety questions, check our safety equipment on board. 

Actually, our crews at the beginning were very tolerant. Our crews are very patient. They know it is not [the] company's problem. They are very understanding. They realize it's something we can't avoid because when China says that they have the right to stop protesters from flying through their airspace and even flying to China, we know that it is related to our job. 

Rebecca, you're not just an employee of Cathay Pacific, but you were also cabin crew union leader and the chairwoman of the 2,000-member Hong Kong Dragon Airlines Flight Attendants' Association.

What happens to those workers now?

As soon as they know that I've been terminated, even the union representative, the union chairperson, all the members [were] very angry.

It's not fair when you're exercising your own freedom of speech, and you didn't even say anything bad about the company.- Rebecca Sy

They're sad and they're shocked, but they're very angry as well because they know that I've never done anything wrong and I shouldn't be terminated just because I admit that Facebook belongs to me.

It's not fair when you're exercising your own freedom of speech, and you didn't even say anything bad about the company.

Rebecca, I'm wondering how tense the situation is in Hong Kong right now for you?

For me, although I have to handle my own legal persecution ... I want to tell the public what I'm doing now is also fighting for the freedom of speech for Hong Kong people, not just for myself. 

I'm trying my best to fight for the justice and that they made a wrong decision to terminate us because we have a different political stance.


Written by Amara McLaughlin, with files from ReutersProduced by Jessica Linzey and Samira Mohyeddin. Q&A has been edited from length and clarity.

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.